Break the schools that break the necks

Not long ago, huge young men (euphemistically called "children" by a society in denial) attacked a Philadelphia public school teacher, and beat him so severely that he was sent to the hospital with a broken neck. The case continues to capture the public's imagination (as it captured mine in a couple of posts), and today the story (with pictures of the teacher in a neck brace and the "children" in prison pjs) was again on the Inquirer's front page.

Thanks to modern medical technology, the teacher is expected to make a full recovery. And even though the "children" have apologized in open court, the teacher says he doesn't understand:

Burd struggled to retain his composure as he showed photographs of his family to Boykin and Footman so they could see that he had a life outside Germantown High School. And tears welled up as he described how upset he was when he thought that his two young grandchildren might have grown up without knowing him.

He recounted his injuries and said he still didn't understand why he had been attacked.

"I don't understand this," Burd said to both students.

"I don't know you," Burd told Footman, who wore a beige shirt and pants. "I didn't do anything to you."

And while William Spalding, Boykin's defense attorney, said his client was less culpable because he had no idea that Footman was going to punch the teacher, Burd said if Boykin had not pushed him, he wouldn't have been injured at all.

When Dougherty asked Boykin why he pursued and pushed Burd, the teen said: "I acted like a child with a temper tantrum. . . . I pushed him because I was mad because he took my iPod."

Later, as Dougherty, administrative judge of Family Court, prepared to impose sentence, he said: "Have we now regressed to where it's now become sport to hurt our teachers? Have we regressed where our school system and the educational structure in Philadelphia has disintegrated to the level that incarceration is next to graduation?"

As I've argued many times, I think schools are basically places of incarceration. I'm not going to scan the pictures of the two "children" who sent Mr. Burd to the hospital, but trust me, they're huge grown men, and they don't look sorry in the least. One of them seems to have plenty of experience in the violent spaces, as the Inquirer says he was "sent to a discipline school after assaulting an administrator at Roosevelt Middle School in 2004," and "has had problems with anger and dealing with authority figures since he was 5."

I hate to be so redundant, but I want to stay with the prison analogy for a moment. I have described the inner-city public schools as daytime joints, because they are so remarkably similar to prisons. In prison, an assault on a guard is taken very seriously, and that's because above all, order must be maintained. However, the guards are allowed to defend themselves, and society for the most part turns a blind eye when a prisoner who assaults a guard gets what's coming to him. If a group of teachers did the same thing to a violent "child" that guards often do to an assaultive prisoner, we'd never hear the end of it. Seriously, had Mr. Burd gottten together with a couple of other teachers and worked these kids over, it would be a national scandal, they'd be looking at serious time, and the school district would be sued for every penny its insurance company has.

Which means that no matter how many times it's repeated, the teacher as prison guard analogy falls short. In practice, prison guards have more rights than teachers. Teachers might be akin to guards in the custodial sense, but they lack the power to control their wards, and in addition they are required to assiduously cultivate and maintain a pretense that what they are doing constitutes "education."

The untold tragedy here is that for every battered teacher who receives front page coverage, there are countless hundreds (probably thousands) of assaulted, battered, bullied and terrorized students. But what bothers me more than that is that an increasingly callused and bureaucratized society has about as much concern with their "rights" as with the rights of an assaulted and terrorized prisoner.

I know it will sound completely lame, but I'll say it anyway.

This is not fair!

Even if society has become so callused as to allow the schools to degenerate into day prisons, what is being forgotten is that just as there is an important distinction between guards and teachers, so there is an important distinction between inmates and students. Society's failure to really care about inmate-on-inmate assaults is based on a cruel, if common-sensical rationalization along the lines of "hey, if they hadn't done the crimes, they wouldn't be there!"

But what crime have students committed which requires they be legally required to be placed in hellholes of incarceration where they must face huge undisciplined thugs on a daily basis? Remember, teachers, like guards, can quit at any time. Unless a student's parents have money or influence within the system, he's stuck. His daily life is a struggle to survive in the cruel and violent world we call the public school.

And where is due process? No one can be imprisoned absent a lengthy process which requires society to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed a crime, following which a judge has to actually sentence him to prison, but even beyond that he has the right to appeal the sentence. Students are simply sentenced by society to attend the daytime holding facilities without any hearing at all. No due process. No appeal. If they have committed a crime, it is one of status. They are (it seems) the wrong age.

Imagine for a moment if society did the same thing to adults. Suppose I received a notice in the mail telling me that I had to report each day to a place of "education" where I knew I would learn nothing but where violent men abounded who would threaten me, and where I was not allowed to carry a weapon in self defense. But I just had to go there daily -- so that society could pretend I was being "educated."

I don't know whether I'd call it Communism, Fascism, or Totalitarianism, but I'd probably scream that I had committed no crime, and I'd go to court and allege that the outrage violated my 5th and 14th Amendment rights to due process, as well as the 13th Amendment prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude.

The reason I have these rights is not because I am a United States citizen, but because I am over eighteen. (This, of course, fits right in with what Dr. Robert Epstein observed in the Glenn and Helen podcast interview -- that young people are severely lacking in basic rights.)

But beyond the right not to be compelled to be sent to a place against my will, common sense suggests that adults and children have the same rights not to be attacked. I have the right to walk down the street without being attacked, and if someone attacks me, I can defend myself, and I can also call the police and have the attacker arrested. It strikes me that children have these same rights, but they are not being enforced.

In practice, it seems that in order to successfully sue the school, the student has to be in a special category (for example, Jewish or gay), and he has to have been singled out for abuse for that reason. But that makes no sense to me. I mean, what's the lesson here? That it's OK for children to attack children as long as they aren't in special categories?

Why isn't there more litigation? After all, people routinely sue each other for auto accidents, yet a child who is bullied suffers far more emotional damage than an adult with "whiplash" injury. An adult who harms an adult can be held liable if his conduct was criminal or tortious. But a child who harms a child cannot be sued, and the long-settled common law doctrine is that "there is no vicarious liability on a parent for the torts of a child." Couple this with the sovereign immunity that schools enjoy, and little wonder the schools have become so callused.

Perhaps if there were more lawsuits, the schools would run out of funding and the tradition of mandatory daytime incarceration in violent places would finally come to an end.

This is certainly an odd thing for me to advocate, because I hate litigation, and I don't like the lawsuit-happy mentality which litigation promotes. However, I think the educational bureaucracy has grown so callused that they deserve litigation -- especially in the violent, out of control schools. The worse the school, the more litigation. What's unfair about that? So I'm glad to see that people are working to get rid of sovereign immunity immunity for school districts.

Spare the law and spoil the educrat.

Who knows? Litigation might even incline the educrats to support the voucher system.

posted by Eric on 04.27.07 at 08:30 AM


The link to the court website doesn't appear to be working correctly.

Stephen   ·  April 27, 2007 9:18 AM

Stephen, because your comment makes no sense and your URL goes to a commercial site, I deleted the URL.

If you're serious, feel free to explain your comment, and I might consider putting your URL back in.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 27, 2007 9:42 AM

I wonder how many teachers have left teaching due to that lack of support and protection they get from their superiors, the school board, and the parents.

SFC SKI   ·  April 29, 2007 4:53 AM

I don't know, but a close friend wanted to teach so badly that he went back to school to get his teaching credential -- only to quit teaching after a year in disgust.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 29, 2007 2:25 PM

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